Inspired by the life of NFL player Spencer Paysinger, The CW drama series All American follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a rising high school football player whose promising talent leads football coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) to recruit him from South Crenshaw High to join the team at Beverly High School in Beverly Hills. Once there, Spencer has to learn how to navigate two worlds – the southside neighborhood that he knows and loves and the affluent Beverly Hills world that feels so foreign to him – while taking advantage of the opportunity that will help him accomplish his dreams.
During this exclusive interview with Cre8tiveSHFT, actor Daniel Ezra talked about the unexpected journey that’s led him from the UK to an American TV series about football, how often people are shocked when they hear him talk with his natural accent, getting to know the real Spencer, how the show is really starting to find its voice, how nerve-wracking it is to wait on the Season 2 renewal, and what he’s most excited about, with what’s still to come this season. He also talked about his role on the sci-fi series A Discovery of Witches, and whether he’ll be returning to that series, which has been picked up for Seasons 2 and 3.
Cre8tiveSHFT: I’m a big fan of the show, which took me by surprise because I am very much not a football person and I often feel like I’m too old for high school shows. But this show is just such quality storytelling that none of that mattered, when I started watching it.
DANIEL EZRA: Fantastic! That means a lot. Thank you so much. That’s so good to hear.
Great storytelling is great storytelling. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a fan of the subject, if there isn’t great storytelling.
EZRA: I felt the same way, coming from the UK, where American football is just another thing, and high school is very different. My first reason for wanting to do it was how, even as someone from the other side of the world, I connected with it.
As a Brit, could you ever have imagined that you’d find yourself leading a TV show about American football?
EZRA: No. Actors always visualize their careers, and the things they want to do, but never did I think I’d be on a show about American football. And when they told me the title, we were half-way through the pilot when they said, “I think we’re gonna call it All American,” I was just like, “Oh, my god!” I just felt like such an imposter. It was crazy! But one of the positives is that it definitely made me work a lot harder. Being the outsider from this world made me more determined to look and sound and fill the part.
Were your friends and family like, “Hey, man, what are you doing?!”?
EZRA: My family was more uplifting than I was because one of my first roles was playing a boxer, and I had never really done boxing before, so they’ve seen me have to go and learn new skills. But yeah, they were a bit like, “You’re gonna go and play American football?” They knew I grew up playing basketball, but when I started acting, I stopped sports completely. But they had a lot of faith in me.
How often are people shocked, when they learn that you’re not American, especially when you pull off the accent so well? Do people ever freak out, when they hear you talk?
EZRA: Yeah, the majority of my Instagram messages are people blown away by the fact that I’m British. It’s the accent, but it’s also such an American show, with the title and the football. We’re talking about some very relevant issues in America today, so the last thing they’re expecting is that. So, when I do interviews and press in my own accent, some people are surprised and shocked, but I think it’s a compliment. My rule for accents is that you haven’t really mastered it until you can convince a native that you’re from where they’re from. That’s a good sign.
You’re also in the first season of A Discovery of Witches, which I really loved, as clearly many other people have, since it’s already been picked up for a second and third season. What was the appeal of that series and character, for you? Are you someone who is, personally, a sci-fi fan?
EZRA: Yes. I grew up on Harry Potter and Philip Pullman books, which are these incredible books about witches and demons, and things like that. As a kid, I was a huge fantasy fan, a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings, and all that stuff. One of the big things was that I’d never done the fantasy genre before. I’ve done period dramas and modern stuff, but I’d never done fantasy before, so when that came along, that was the big draw. As an actor, you always want to challenge yourself and try out different genres. The biggest pull is to try to do something new, that’s far away from anything else that I’ve done before. With All American, it was the same thing. I’d never done an American show before, and I got to do American football. So, it was cool to do something different, and I’m looking forward to going back for the second season.
So, you’re going to be able to go back for Season 2?
EZRA: Yeah. Luckily, fate worked out. While we’re on hiatus, I’m gonna go back and film.
Very cool! I love that show because it’s such a different take on that kind of genre.
EZRA: Yeah, I agree. And every character is complex. I love it when shows are steeped in this really well thought out world, with so much history. That’s my favorite thing about the show. We get to talk about all of this stuff that happened thousands of years ago, and how it all lead up to this moment. That’s always my favorite thing about these kinds of shows, and that’s something we do really well in A Discovery of Witches.
One of the cool things about All American is that you’ve got a real guy that you’re playing, who you can get to know and who’s involved with the show. What’s it been like for you to get to know the real Spencer, and have this opportunity to bring a version of him to life?
EZRA: It was a really beautiful thing ‘cause when I got the part, I didn’t how involved he was gonna be. I taped in London, and then when they flew me out for the screen test, he wasn’t at that audition. But then, he ended up being on set, every day, for the pilot, and he actually plays one of the assistant coaches on the show. So, anytime you we have football, he’s around. He’s always popping in the office. He’s a consulting producer, so he’s always in the writers’ room. The show’s authenticity and the truthfulness that we’re going for is never really a worry for anybody ‘cause everything goes through Spencer. The barbershop that we filmed at was the barbershop where he got his hair cut. The park where we filmed was where he used to play. It’s all based on these real places. Even when we do take artistic license, it’s still always rooted in this man’s life, so having him there, as that support system, has been invaluable. I would go and ask him questions about certain things, like, “Where was your was your head, when this kind of thing was happening? What were you thinking, at this point in time?” He was great. He never imposed anything. He always let me have the freedom to do my own thing, but always made himself completely available whenever I needed him, and that was not just for me but for the story.
The first season of any show is always about finding what the show is, what works and what doesn’t, and who the characters are and what their relationships are. Was there a moment, this season, where you felt like you really had a handle on who Spencer is, or do you feel like you’re still exploring that?
EZRA: I feel like I’m still exploring it. I feel like Episodes 8 and 9 is probably the closest I’ve come to understanding this guy, but there’s still so much more to discover, with each episode. I wouldn’t say that I have a full handle on it, and the thing is that I don’t know if I ever will, but to me, that’s a good thing. I don’t know if I ever will actually grasp him, but how well do we know ourselves? I definitely feel closer and closer, every time. As we move deeper and deeper into the season, you’ll see that everyone is so much more comfortable. The show is really starting to find its voice. First seasons are always difficult ‘cause you’re not only trying to tell a compelling story, but you’re also trying to just figure out who you are, as a show, and you’re trying to figure out the kind of show you want to be. Especially in the second half, we’re settling into the kind of show we want to be.
We’re seeing Spencer get more and more active about finding a better balance between the two worlds that he lives in. Do you feel like he’s at a place where he’s finding that balance, or will that always be something of a struggle for him?
EZRA: I think he is. It’s also one of those things where, every time he figures something out or figures out his place, by the laws of television, something else will pop up that shakes his world up again. For me, the entire season is Spencer reconciling his survivor’s guilt and reconciling the idea that he’s the one that got out. When you metaphorically leave your family and your friends behind, it’s that survivors guilt of being the one to “escape,” whatever that means. As that’s just about to reconcile, things will pop up that call into question the decisions made. So, it’s like going one step forward, and then two steps back, but I think it will get better, eventually.
One of the things that I love most about this series is the relationship between Spencer and Coop. What do you most enjoy about getting to play with that relationship, and what’s it been like to have Bre-Z to explore that with?
EZRA: Bre-Z is one of the most fun actors that I’ve worked with. You never know what you’re gonna get. That’s the way I like to work, always trying to do something different, or give the directors different options. That the sense of play that we have to be. It’s always fun with Bre-Z. That relationship is one of my favorite, too. It’s that kind of relationship that you just want to root for.
This show has such a great ensemble of actors, with some familiar and less familiar faces. When you have somebody like Taye Diggs on the show, who’s been in this business doing film, TV, and theater, for many years now, what do you learn from working with someone like him?
EZRA: For me, it’s the ability to relax. Taye is very laid back and relaxed, which makes everyone else more relaxed. So, even though he is Taye Diggs, when he comes to the set, there’s always that sense of exploration and play. Even though he’s been around for awhile, he’s still trying to learn, and he’s still very inquisitive, always asking questions and always trying to figure it out. You almost forget, in the best way possible, that he’s done so much. Some of my favorite scenes are the scenes in the big house where we’re all together. I love watching him because you really do forget how long he’s been around because there’s that charm and play that he always brings, and that’s such a beautiful thing to see from someone that’s been in this life. You meet some actors, when they get to that age or that level of experience, and they can become jaded, or they just come to work, get it done, and go home. With Taye, he still comes to learn and play. He loves this project and Coach Baker, and he connects with the character. That’s probably my favorite thing about working with him. He’s still that young, ambitious and curious, despite all of his experience.
As an actor, how nerve-wracking is it to be on a great show that you can be really proud of, but still never know for sure whether or not you’re going to get to keep telling the story, with future seasons?
EZRA: Oh, it’s terrifying! We were talking about that, the other day, because this whole process is new to me. It’s partly my fault because I never really allow myself to fully relax into and really celebrate what it is that we’re doing because there’s always something that I’m giving myself to worry about. When I wanted this part, it was, “This script is amazing, but I might not get the part.” And then, I got the part and shot the pilot, and it was, “The pilot is amazing, but what if it doesn’t get picked up?” I enjoyed the pilot, but probably not as much as I should have let myself. And then, we were filming these amazing scenes, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Are we gonna come back and be able to keep telling this story?” It’s always something to be worried about. I think way too much about the future, but I’m working on it. So yeah, it’s nerve-wracking, but it’s one of those things that just makes you work harder. I’ve spoken to our showrunner, Nkechi Okoro Carroll, and they’re already tossing around ideas for a second season, if we get one. I’m just so excited about the opportunity to keep telling it, and so is everyone, so we will see. We just wrapped the first season, and everyone is desperate to come back and keep going. And I’ve gotten some really, really beautiful messages from people. I got a message from a teacher the other day. Episodes 9 and 10 were very heavy, about the danger of gang violence, and a teacher messaged me about how it made her see her students differently and completely changed her perspective on the kids that she teaches. That’s why you do this. Now, to be able to keep doing it is what everybody wants.
Since you’ve finished shooting the season, what are you most excited about, as far as what’s still to come?
EZRA: That’s a good question. So, it’s leading up to a very big climactic moment. The thing I’m looking forward to the most is finally giving the audience some of the answers of the big season-long questions. I always feel bad when I’m on a show that tortures audiences. Obviously, there are reasons for all of these things, and I think the audience will be very, very satisfied. Obviously, one answer will bring up a million more questions, as we keep telling the story, but there’s gonna be some really definitive, really cool answers coming up, for some of the earlier things that were thrown up, and I’m really looking forward to that. I think the way we play out these big revelations, coming up in the next few episodes, is gonna be really exciting for people to see.
All American airs on Wednesday nights on The CW.